I love Italian Renaissance frescoes. I can neither see enough of them nor learn enough about them. Therefore, before my last trip to Florence, I did some research and put together a list of frescoes that I wanted to view in Florence and in surrounding towns. I was able to visit many of them and loved them all, but some of the frescoes that I loved the most were never even on my list. Those are the frescoes that embellish the Salon Dei Mesi (the Room of Months) within the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.
I was visiting my dear friends in Ferrara for the weekend and they, knowing how much I love Renaissance art and frescoes, took me to this palace. I had never heard of this place nor these frescoes. The meaning of the palace name is fascinating. It was the leisure and pleasure palace of the d’Este family, headed by Duke Borso d’Este. The d’Estes ruled over Ferrara during the Renaissance period. The palace name is thought to originate from “schivar la noia”, meaning literally to “escape from boredom”. What a fantastic name!
When I entered the Room of Months in the Palace of Escape from Boredom, I felt as though I had walked into a fantasyland. No one could be bored in this room! The room was once completely frescoed on all four walls with a series of panels representing each month of the year. Sadly, the west and south walls are extremely damaged and deteriorated to the point that one can only see fragments. The north and east walls, however, are in very good condition. The north wall portrays the months of June, July, August and September and is believed to have been painted by Cosimo Tura. The east wall is attributed to Francesco del Cossa. The east wall was the one that most captured my imagination.
These frescoes are one of the most remarkable surviving works of the Ferrarese Renaissance artists. What struck me is that they are pagan. I was so used to seeing religious themes in frescoes. The purely pagan frescoes consist of three tiers for each month. The top tier depicts mythology-an ancient diety in procession. The second tier depicts the zodiac symbol appropriate to that month, and the bottom tier shows the courtly activities of the d’Este court during that month.
Francesco del Cossa was born around 1436 and passed away at a young age of plague around 1478. A letter was discovered in the late 1800’s which he had written to the Duke d’Este asking for more money for his work. After being refused, he left for Bologna in 1470. Perhaps he would have completed more of the walls of the Room of Months had this not occurred.
Del Cossa’s April fresco segment was the most captivating to me. The top panel depicts Venus, the goddess of spring and rebirth, riding a carriage that looks to be made of Christmas ribbon candy. Her carriage is drawn by swans guided with red ribbons. There is a suitor kneeling before her, and she appears to be holding an apple or some type of melon. Doves fly above her head, young lovers gather all about – some embracing, some holding instruments. Rabbits and fauna abound and magical castles loom in the distance. In the upper right corner there are three naked figures who I assume to be the Graces, as we see in Boticelli’s Primavera approximately a decade later. The entire scene is like a fairytale that draws one in and sparks the imagination.
The middle panel of April depicts the Zodiac figure of Taurus the Bull.
The bottom panel of del Cossa’s April is the one that depicts the allegorical scene of every day life. His choice here is the Ferrara Palio. The Palio is a festival of parades and competitions, culminating in a bareback horserace. Siena’s palio is the most famous, but Ferrara’s is the oldest. The race is occurring at the top of the panel and at the bottom, courtiers gather and converse. There is one delightful figure of a man who sits at the edge of the fresco with his legs “hanging” over the edge. It is a whimsical touch that brings even more life to the fresco.
I hope to return to the Palace of Escape from Boredom on my next visit to Italy. Certainly not that I need an escape from boredom when in Italy, but because the Palazzo Schifanoia and it’s amazing fantastical, pagan, humanistic fresco cycle are thoroughly enchanting and captivating!